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Once in a while, you see a film where it's clear that everyone involved is operating at the peak of of their skills, yet the whole is so misguided that the result is still awful. Such is "The Desperate Hour."
Naomi Watts is Amy Carr, a mom who goes out for a morning jog in the forest just as a school shooting happens in her rural town, and must struggle to find her way out of the forest, overcoming injuries while juggling multiple incoming phone calls and texts in hopes of figuring out whether her elementary-school age daughter Emily (Sierra Maltby) and teenaged son Noah (Colton Gobbo) are safe. Directed by the great Australian director Philip Noyce ("Dead Calm," "The Quiet American") and written by Chris Sparling ("Sea of Trees," "Buried"), "The Desperate Hour" seems to think it has something urgent and deep to say about the American phenomenon of mass gun murders being committed in public settings pretty much continuously.
This is far from the first piece of filmed or written media to use fiction to try to delve into the topic—the thoughtful "Mass" did it a few months ago, with a setup akin to a four-character stage play—but it might be the first one to (inadvertently, one assumes) exploit it in such a Hollywood way that after a certain point, you lose track of all the bad-taste twists and turns the story takes. The word "inappropriate" doesn't do justice to the storytelling here.
This is a sick piece of work, from the hackneyed screenwriting device of having Amy and the kids grieving the death of Amy's husband and the kids' father after almost exactly one year, to the opening exchange between the oblivious Amy and the grumpy, haunted, seemingly alienated Noah (which plants the dually offensive ideas that the anniversary of the loss of a parent and the inattentions of a mother might be to blame for a school shooting—neither of which is actually developed or delivered on). And then there are the endless and sometimes unintentionally funny scenes of Amy running, running, running, and stumbling, and gasping and crying, and running again, trying to get to her beloved kids (pretty soon you figure out this is not a movie about a mother whose children die senselessly in a preventable real-world horror, but a movie about a heroic mom who will use all of her willpower and intuition to save her children). That "The Desperate Hour" seems to think its heart is in the right place makes it more disturbing.
The 12 girls and 8 boys shot to death in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre were 6 and 7 years old, and there's nothing in law enforcement files suggesting that if one or more of the parents had gotten there faster, or been a little bit more adept at using their phone skills to piece together bits of information to figure out the gunman's motivation and help the police talk him down, their children would still be alive.
There's an alternately pulse-pounding and ethereally uplifting score that evokes work by Thomas Newman ("The Shawshank Redemption," "In the Bedroom") and clever drone shots that help us admire the fall foliage in the woodland areas Amy runs through. At the very end, there's a plaintive tune that might have a shot at a Best Original Song nomination at next year's Oscars, if this movie gets some traction with Oscar bloggers.
Naomi Watts is, as is so often the case, brilliant, riveting our attention for nearly 90 minutes in which the focus is almost entirely on her worried face and voice, and the screen of her mobile phone. (She even scrolls and types with feeling.) But in the end, her efforts add up to less of an endorsement of her talent than a confirmation that, like so many brilliant movie actors, she appears to be selecting scripts on the basis of how challenging the part might prove to be, without giving enough weight to the question of whether the idea of the movie is good or mediocre or bad or, in this case, grotesque.
I can't imagine what it will be like to stumble across "The Desperate Hour" on cable having lost a child to gun violence under circumstances that these filmmakers treat as a framework for thrills, plot twists, and Oscar clips. I imagine it'll be a bit like having lost family members in 9/11 and seeing the attacks used as emotional shorthand for "this character is sad and mad." Everyone involved with this thing should've known better.
Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms.